May you marry long and suffer

Caitlin Flanagan hopes we all live miserably ever after

Published July 7, 2009 4:06PM (EDT)

Tuesday morning pop quiz: Which national political scold is behind the following observation in this week's Time magazine? "Watching the governor of South Carolina cry like a little girl because his sexy e-mails got forwarded to his local newspaper, made me wonder if the real secret to a lasting marriage lies in limiting your means of escape."

Who else could it be? Yes, it's none other than Caitlin Flanagan, with all her emasculating barbs, catastrophic pronouncements and totally depressing one-size-fits-all solutions to ordinary human problems. This week, she lets us know that "Marriage Matters" -- Mark Sanford, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jon and Kate and other "marital frauds" and "casual sadists" be damned. "There is no other single force causing as much human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage," she writes. It will come as no surprise to fans and foes of her work that Flanagan, like Jenny Sanford, is only thinking about the children: Divorce, she writes, is a "matchless tool for the infliction of suffering on the people you supposedly love above all others, most of all on your children."

As Linda Hirshman points out in DoubleX, there's nothing new to see here: just Flanagan's "usual brew of autobiography (my parents fifty year marriage; my husband's caretaking), outmoded studies, and interviews with experts from right wing foundations."

Flanagan goes all the way back to 1994 to cite the research of Sarah McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist -- and single mother, to boot! -- whose work, she claims, shows that children who "grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents' race or educational background." She cites an ominous-sounding "sleeper" effect that allegedly shows the children of divorced middle-class parents do less well in college than underprivileged children from two-parent families (or perhaps those "underprivileged" children don't take their educations for granted in quite the same way as a middle-class child who has been raised to believe a college education is a given).

Yet, as Hirshman points out, a far more recent study, published by Penn State's Paul Amato in 2005, surveyed a decade's worth of studies on the impact of divorce  and found that, "Some suggest serious negative effects, others suggest modest effects and yet others suggest no effects," and concluded that "if the share of adolescents living in two-parent families returned to its 1970 level, it would have ... a relatively small effect on the share of children experiencing those problems." And while Flanagan points out that the dissolution of marriage is deemed so "catastrophic" to society that the last three presidents have embraced programs that, in one form or another, encourage families to stick together, we'd just like to throw it out there that two of those three presidents were themselves raised by single mothers.

The forces against marriage, according to Flanagan, are class-specific: "The poor are doing it by uncoupling parenthood from marriage, and the financially secure are doing it by blasting apart their unions if the principals aren't having any fun anymore." In other words: The poor are too dumb to know any better and the rich are stuck on this narcissistic notion of "happiness."

Throughout the rest of her essay, Flanagan seems hell-bent on making fun of those poor fools who think that raising children with the purported person they love is supposed to be, you know, fun. Watching Kate Gosselin "harass Jon into making himself a lower-calorie lunch, and go back to wiping down the counters and giving orders," she sees evidence of "profound" marital truth: "marriage was an enterprise dedicated not to making themselves happy but to taking care of the cavalcade of children they had produced, that they were laboring at something more significant than their own pleasure." And how is this for a PSA to encourage America's youth to the altar: "There probably aren't many people whose idea of 24-hour-a-day good times consists of being yoked to the same person, through bouts of stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional upsets, until after many a long decade, one or the other eventually dies in harness." Well, OK! Sign me up! Where can I get fitted for that harness?

But whatever Flanagan's opinion of the Mark Sanfords and Sandra Tsing Lohs of the world, the rest of us have little reason to worry that their problems somehow signal the face of a new American marriage crisis. As Tracy Clark-Flory pointed out last week, "the bleak silver lining" is that roughly 76 percent of people stay married to a cheating spouse. And as Kay Hymowitz points out in the Wall Street Journal, "The typical divorce is not of a mid-life couple bored with finishing each other's sentences; it's of a twosome who have just written the last thank-you note." More than one-fifth of marriages break up in the first five years; median age for men at first divorce is 30.5 years; for women, 29. "The cruel joke for the good investor, though," writes Hymowitz, "is that the latter practical goal -- kids -- undermines the former idealistic one -- love." But here's the most important piece of information: The divorce rate for college-educated women has been declining since 1980. Which means that the parents of this generation are, if anything, more likely to stay together than our own parents. Perhaps watching the dissolution of bad marriages the first time around taught us a thing or two? Isn't that more cover-worthy than scolding a couple of politicians and reality TV stars, Time magazine?  

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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